Superman/Batman: Interview With LeVar Burton (Black Lightning)
The next original DC animated film is Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, due out on DVD on September 29. Based on a comic story by Jeph Loeb about Lex Luthor becoming President of the U.S. and declaring the heroes illegal, the movie features LeVar Burton as the voice of Black Lightning, one of the many DC heroes battling the title characters.
The following interview text was provided by Warner Home Video, as were previous interviews with John C. McGinley (Metallo) and writer Stan Berkowitz. Burton has some interesting things to say about Black Lightning’s historical role, his own comic book history, and the value of imagination and science fiction.
In a career that essentially launched with his breakthrough performance in the landmark miniseries Roots, LeVar Burton has garnered seven Emmy Awards, three Image Awards, a Peabody as well as a Grammy, and in 1990 was permanently enshrined as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Burton is forever beloved by the sci-fi crowd for his memorable performance as Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation and its feature film versions. Along the way, Burton has been a virtual fixture on television screens — from his 176 episodes of Next Gen and 150 episodes of Reading Rainbow to another 41 episodes of The $10,000 Pyramid and 58 episodes as Kwame in Captain Planet and the Planeteers.
QUESTION: Was it difficult to settle on a voice for Black Lightning?
LEVAR BURTON: I think everybody has a super hero that lives inside of them, so I just went to that place, that deep kind of super hero voice.
QUESTION: What were your comic book habits as a kid?
LEVAR BURTON: I grew up, part time, in Germany. My father was in the military, so we used to trade comic books for entertainment. On Saturdays, you took your box with all your comic books, and you went around from apartment building to apartment building, trading comic books with the other American kids living on the base. Television was in German, so we didn’t watch TV — we read comics. But this was before black super heroes came around — they didn’t start appearing until the ’70s. So it’s mildly exciting for me to actually have a chance to play a black super hero today.
QUESTION: Batman or Superman?
LEVAR BURTON: When I was a kid, it was always Batman over Superman. Batman had all the cool stuff, and he just had a vibe. Superman was the All-American guy but, with Batman, there’s a little something going on. Batman’s history was a little edgier, and there was just something really attractive to me about the cowl. Superman is all out there, even though he does the Clark Kent thing, but Batman keeps his identity hidden. He has this double life that’s very sexy, very attractive for a kid. Not that I didn’t like Superman — the whole kryptonite thing is all well and good — but Batman was my guy.
QUESTION: What makes comic books great literature?
LEVAR BURTON: People ask me all the time, because I did Reading Rainbow on PBS for 25 years, “How do I get my kids to read?” And I say, “Find something that they’re passionate about.” If it’s comic books that they want to read, then buy them comic books, for goodness sakes. Comic books are good literature and, like science fiction, they have a tendency to really draw us toward that part of ourselves that imagines that which we create.
I’m one of those people that believes that there was some kid back in the 1960s watching Star Trek, and he kept seeing Captain Kirk pull out this communicator and flip it open — and that kid grew up and became an engineer, a designer of products, and we now have a device that is more common than the toaster. How many flip phones do you see on a daily basis? That which we imagine is what we tend to manifest in third dimension — that’s what human beings do, we are manifesting machines. The metaphor of a man who has an external electronic device, something man-made that serves him and somehow serves humanity, and that he becomes so aligned with that device, with the power of that device, that at one point he can discard it — I think that’s a real metaphor for the human journey. One day we won’t need a transporter device to get from one place to another. And it begins with the wheel and then migrates through airplanes to some future technology that we can’t produce yet but we can imagine. Imagination is really the key part of the human journey, it’s the key to the process of manifesting what our heart’s desire is.
When I was a kid, it was comic books that pointed me in that direction and from comic books I went to science fiction literature, which is still one of my most favorite genres of literature to read. Don’t underestimate the power of comics and what they represent for us and how they inform us on the journey of being human — because it’s powerful. It’s very powerful. They give us permission to contemplate what’s possible. And in this world, in this universe, there’s nothing that is not possible. If you can dream it, you can do it.
QUESTION: Can you appreciate the passion of the sci-fi fan?
LEVAR BURTON: Oh yeah. Because I am one. When I was a kid, I read a lot of science fiction books and it was rare for me to see heroes of color in the pages of those novels. Gene Roddenberry had a vision of the future, and Star Trek was one that said to me, as a kid growing up in Sacramento, California, “When the future comes, there’s a place for you.” I’ve said this many times, and Whoopi (Goldberg) feels the same way — seeing Nichelle Nichols on the bridge of the Enterprise meant that we are a part of the future. So I was a huge fan of the original series and to have grown up and become of that mythos, a part of that family, and to represent people dealing with physical challenges, much like what Nichelle Nichols represented for people like Whoopi and myself, I can’t even begin to share with you what that means to me. It was just beyond the beyond. So I get Star Trek fans, I get science fiction fans because, again, science fiction literature is that body of literature that causes us to ask what I feel are two of the most of the most powerful words — in sequence, in language — “what if?” And that’s an open door, that’s an open door to use your imagination to dream and to dream the big dream. As an actor, I dress up for a living and I get paid for it so, to see a guy come to a convention in his costume that he’s made — it’s a good thing, you know. This guy isn’t out there beating his wife or kicking his dog, he’s engaging in a healthy fantasy role-play. I think too many grown ups forget how important that part of our lives are, the ability to imagine and to dream. So it’s all good.
QUESTION: You’re Black Lightning for this film. If you could play any super hero role, do you have a role you covet?
LEVAR BURTON: Well, I’ll start with Black Lightning. That ain’t a bad place to start. I mean, come on, if you’re going to play a super hero, why not play the first real black super hero in the pantheon? I’m good with that.
QUESTION: Does voiceover work have any special appeal for you?
LEVAR BURTON: I love voiceovers because, and I’m sure you hear this from actors all the time, but it’s kind of pure acting. For many years on Next Gen, I wore this visor over my eyes and one of the things that I discovered was that it’s really difficult to communicate, or it’s harder to communicate, when you can’t see someone’s eyes. As a result of playing Geordi, I really do recognize how important the voice is — and what a facile tool for communication the voice can be. When I was kid, we listened to radio a lot for entertainment and I remember how vivid that was for me. To this day, I listen to NPR and I love doing audio books — because it’s like it’s pure storytelling. It’s sitting around the fire and sharing stories, really engaging your imagination. So, as an actor, sitting in front of a microphone and creating is just so much fun because it really does break it down to its most pure and elemental level. It’s just you and the voice and the character telling a story.
QUESTION: Does it ever feel odd to be acting all alone?
LEVAR BURTON: Well, during the physical parts of the voiceover, when you’re doing all the action scenes, I think if you were an alien and dropped into a recording studio and were observing a session, you would really wonder about the sanity of the beings that you are observing. But it’s fun and it feels a little silly, but that’s what gets it done. When they’re in that mode, I think actors are just big kids — and we like playing in the sandbox.